Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 22, 2004 10:38 pm 
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Antonio Bocola, Paolo Vari: Fame Chimica (Chemical Hunger) 2003

Flavorful meal still leaves you a little hungry

The grim housing projects of a Milan suburb look a lot like the same thing in St. Louis or San Francisco or Baltimore. Claudio (Marco Foschi) is a young man who's been stuck working for two years at a frozen food warehouse where his uncle is the manager. He hangs with his longtime friend Manuel (Matteo Gianoli), who's a drug dealer and top dog among the layabouts at the project where they both live. The social focus of this world is the drab space below the apartments near the children's play area where the unemployed young men sit on benches talking of cars and bikes and girls and jobs and complaining about the scattering of foreigners -- north Africans and blacks they call "negri"-- the Italian equivalent of the "N" word -- who're also living there. Like the lovely town squares of traditional Italian centri storici (historical centers), these soulless yards are called piazze. The guys who spend their days there are called plazari.

During the period covered by the film our two plazari Claudio and Manuel both fall for a pretty girl named Maja (Valeria Solarino), who's just reappeared from London but hates it here and is in a hurry to raise cash to go back. Claudio takes Maja to swim at night at a fancy indoor pool and they strip, swim, and kiss. There's more drugs than sex in this film: coke, and lots of joints passed around that produce the need to assuage one's fame chimica. That's Italian for "the munchies," though co-director Antonio Bocola says we should think of this hunger more as a metaphor representing the urgent desire for a better life. Claudio and Manuel both have that larger hunger, but they're not equally successful in satisfying it.

Days pass rather aimlessly. Later the two guys and Maja go to a noisy disco full of beautiful bodies. But while Manuel just sells drugs and plays games in the daytime, Claudio must also put in long days at the warehouse. The workers there are exploited even though it's a cooperative. In the film's final minutes Claudio resolves his job issue and Maja departs again for London. But before that there's a drug deal and a confrontation, an arrest, and an explosion -- the latter always a good way of giving structure to otherwise shapeless material.

The attempt to combine social commentary with romance leads to a somewhat desultory film. Urban poverty, workers' rights, and racial conflicts between Italians and Third World extracomunitari (people from outside the European Union) in Berlusconi's Italy represent one set of related issues; Claudio's career and romantic uncertainties and interactions with his more illegal pal Manuel are another. The filmmakers give too many subjects equal weight and this diffuses the effect. The whole is less than the parts, and it winds up being a pretty long 97 minutes.

But this is not to impugn the filmmakers' good intentions or the admirable decision to make Fame chimica a truly independent, socially conscious cooperative effort. According to co-director Boccola in a question session after a showing of the film at the San Francisco New Italian Cinema festival, the whole cast contributed to help raise the $800,000 of the production budget and thus have became joint owners of the film.

A new wrinkle is an Italian rapper, Lo Zul├╣, leader of the "99 Posse," complete with flame neck tattoos and nose ring, who comments on the social situation in songs he sings like a Greek chorus, filmed onscreen in front of the set and action like the Calypso singer Celia Cruz whose performance bookends Jonathan Demme's 1986 Something Wild.

Shown at the New Italian Cinema Event in San Francisco, November 2004. Like the other films in the series, Fame chimica has no US distributor.



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